Untitled Flash Fiction (143 words)

She saw him and her heart skipped a beat. He was everything she never knew she needed. They married a year later and lived happily together, arguing only over the thermostat and who gets to read the Sunday comics first. Five years after first meeting, his car is run off the road. He is in the hospital for ten days before he finally succumbs to his injuries.

The next few weeks, she doesn’t leave her home, shutting out all visitors. She convinced herself that he hadn’t left her. Little things like the thermostat changing on it’s own or his favorite slippers moving around the house with no explanation. One night she woke up with a start. At the foot of her bed was a shadow, a badly degraded form of the man she loved. She saw him and her heart skipped a beat.

 

 

Prompt is from Instagram account @writing.prompt.s

They Say… (Short Story – 100 Prompts)

“They say this is the boy’s bike…”

It certainly looked old enough to fit the legend. Every inch of the frame was rusted metal and bulky, nothing like the streamlined road bikes which they all straddled. The relic rested haphazardly against a long forgotten wooden fence post that at one time marked the edge of a farm that used to be here. Every ten feet or so, another gnarled wooden post stood, creating an eerie border, cutting through the woods. The six boys dropped their bikes to the forest floor and crowded around the rusted figure.

“Wait, what boy? I thought you said the ghost was an old man?” Sean tugged his backpack off his shoulders and tossed it down next to his bike. 

“It is, newbie,” Lincoln sighed. He stepped in front of the bike, centering himself in front of the group of them. It was obvious from the moment Sean first walked into Timberland Middle School that Lincoln was the leader of the seventh grade. Sean knew if he wanted to fit in, he needed to be friends with Lincoln. “His name was Willard Grady. They say he kidnapped kids and brought them to the river and drowned them.”

“Why?” Ezra had spoken up. Sean was sure this wasn’t the first time the other boys had heard the story, but Lincoln was in showmanship mode and all of them stood enthralled.

“He was crazy.” Lincoln squatted and touched the rusted bike frame reverently. “They say this bike belongs to his last victim. He disappeared the same day as Old Man Grady, nobody knows what happened to either of them; they say their bodies were never found.”

Lincoln stood back up and swung his bag around so it rested on his stomach. He dug in and pulled out a handful of things. “They say Old Man Grady still haunts these woods, ringing an old bicycle bell as he prowls for more kids to drown in the river. Sean, your dare, should you be so brave as to accept, is to walk to the edge of the river, light this candle, and shout out to Old Man Grady that you’re here and not afraid of him.”

Lincoln shoved the items into Sean’s hands: a white pillar candle, a pack of matches, and a flashlight. Sean didn’t relish the thought of walking into unfamiliar woods alone less than a week after moving to a new town, but he wanted to be part of the group, he wanted to show them he wasn’t scared. “Each of you has done this before?”

The five other boys emphatically nodded and added words like “loads of times” but somehow Sean didn’t believe them. “Ok, well how far until the river?”

“Walk for about 10 minutes in that direction and you’ll see it, you can’t miss it.” 

Sean loaded the candle and matches into his bag which he slung back on his shoulders. He stood at the rusted bicycle, hesitant to cross the invisible barrier where the fence used to be. With one last glance over his shoulder at the guys, he took his first step deeper into the forest. 

He told himself not to look back, that looking back was a sign of fear and weakness, but he couldn’t help himself and, after enough time had passed, glanced back to see if they were still there. Although he was far enough away that he couldn’t really tell them apart, he figured the one leaning against a tree was Lincoln with Thomas, Ezra, Nicholas, and Jace all sitting on the forest floor in front of him, the beams of their flashlights waving around madly as they fought with them. Even though it was only dusk, the dense canopy of the forest made it necessary for them to need flashlights. 

He turned away from them, thankful that they hadn’t left him as a cruel prank, and continued deeper into the dark woods. Sean told himself that he was almost thirteen, almost a man, and wasn’t going to be scared of a story. Everything was still and quiet this far in, the only sound is the constant babbling of water from somewhere ahead of him. The flashlight Lincoln had given him wasn’t anywhere near as strong as the one he had at home, it’s beam weakly lighting up a small patch in front of him as he walked. 

A small sigh of relief escaped from his dry lips as his flashlight finally reflected off the moving water ahead of him. He was almost done. At the water’s edge, there were several boulders. He walked up to the largest of the three, it stood about chest high and he placed the candle from his bag on top. Sean twirled the matchbook between his fingers, contemplating his options. He had made it to the river, he could walk back and say he did it. He was far enough away from them that even if he yelled out to the ghost like he was supposed to, they wouldn’t hear him. 

But did he really want to solidify his new friendships with a lie? Before he could think on it too much more, he struck the match and lit the candle. It wasn’t much, but the small flame helped make the forest seem not as dark. This was it. All he had to do was say some words and he could head back to his new friends. He cleared his throat and decided to scream as loud as he could, hoping that Lincoln and the others could hear him. 

“Old Man Grady! Here I am! And I’m not afraid of you!!” It would have felt empowering, if his voice hadn’t cracked in the middle of the word afraid. Was it from fear or puberty? If he thought the forest was quiet before, it was as if all sound had been blocked now. Even the river seemed to quiet down. 

A twig snaps somewhere to his left. He sweeps the beam of the flashlight in the direction, anxiously shining it’s light around searching for the source of the noise. It was a deer, or a rabbit or something, he told himself. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He had done what he needed to. He blew out the candle and left it where it sat. 

As he turned to head back, his flashlight flickers, briefly engulfing him in the darkness of the forest, before coming back on. Sean never thought he would be so happy to have that weak stream of light. Not wanting to be there any longer than he needed to be, he heads off back out of the forest, faster than he had walked in. 

Brrring! The wind carried the distant noise to his ears, the sound which in any other situation would have been completely normal. But here, in the middle of the woods, the ring of the bicycle bell causes every inch of his skin to form goose bumps. Icy water had replaced his blood and he was colder than he ever thought possible. His chin quivers and he rationalizes that it’s probably just Jace, they said he was a prankster, so he probably added the bit about the bell so he could scare him. Yeah, that was it. 

And yet his feet stomp just a little faster. Something fast breaks through the cylinder of light cast by his flashlight. It took a fraction of a second. Did he imagine that? Maybe. But instinct takes over; his fingers and toes tingle as his body is flooded with the “flight” hormone. Sean takes off running at full speed, barely avoiding trees. 

He can hear his heart pounding, louder than he’s ever heard before. And yet over that deafening noise, there is something else. The sound is unmistakeable. Something is behind him and catching up. 

It’s too risky to turn and look but he has to know. Has to. Would he turn and see Jace red faced and laughing? Or would he see the ghost of a madman? 

He glances over his shoulder and his blood turns to ice again. It’s not Jace. 

But it’s not Old Man Grady either.

The figure chasing after him has the appearance of a boy, younger than him, but not by much. He wears overalls and his skin is sallow and gray. Even though he is keeping pace, his feet never touch the ground. He merely hovers along behind him. His arms are outstretched, reaching for Sean.

A part of him always thought if he did see a ghost, it would be see-through, like a fog. This apparition behind him was scarier. It seemed to have weight to it, as if it could really hurt him. Even though his legs ached with exhaustion, he pushed harder, trying to put distance between himself and the boy. 

Up ahead, the trees thinned and he could see the beams from five flashlights lazily floating around. An unintelligible scream escapes his throat. Part warning, part cry for help. Instantly all five flashlights find him. He can hear them screaming “hurry up!”

He can’t explain it, but Sean knows that if he can get past the old fence post, he’ll be safe. 

A raspy voice right behind him shouts “Run!”

He’s close enough to make out who is who in the dark, he can even see the shape of the fence post. He’s so close, he’s going to make it, he’ll be safe in just a few more seconds.

Before he can reach the invisible boundary, he is pushed to the ground from behind. The wind is knocked out of him and he lays there, gasping, listening to the frantic screams of Lincoln and the others just feet away. 

Cold fingers wrap around his ankles and with a sharp tug, begin to drag him back into the woods. His fingers claw for purchase in the forest floor, but find nothing but loose dirt and twigs. Sean lifts his head to see the five boys gathered next to the post, screaming to him. A sixth boy in overalls stands nearby, watching Sean with sad eyes. Without thinking, he kicks at whatever is holding him, glancing backwards just long enough to see the surprised look on the old man’s face. 

Scrambling on hands and knees, he heads for the fence post. The ghost of the little boy no longer scares him. Instead it waves it’s arms as if to say “yes, this way, come on!” 

Kicking off with his back feet, he reaches an arm out towards Lincoln to pull him to safety but it’s at that moment when Willard Grady’s ghost grasps his ankle again. Sean’s arms wildly reach out for anything to grab ahold of and they grasp the rough metal of the old bike frame. Before he can get dragged in again, Lincoln, Jace, Nicholas, Thomas, and Ezra each grab the other end of the bike. 

With two hard yanks, they manage to free Sean from the ghost’s grip and pull him to their side of the fence. They lay in a pile, breathing raggedly, and watch as Old Man Grady stalks back and forth along the inside of the invisible fence before giving up and heading back into the woods. 

The young boy still stands off to the side, smiling at them. He glances to the rusted bicycle tangled up in their arms. With a wink at them, a bicycle identical to the one they cling to, except without the rust, appears. The young boy hops on and turns to ride off into the woods, with a last brrrrring of his bicycle bell as a goodbye.


All short stories in the “100 prompts” tag will be written using the flash fiction prompts list on Eva Deverell’s Creative Writing Blog.  They will all be stand-alone short stories unless otherwise noted. Check out the Story Index for more. (Image is from: Here)

This story was written using Prompt # 15: Write a story that begins and ends with a bicycle.

They’re Just Like Us (The Finale)

Catch up on the story here


Warmth. Something soft beneath me. A crackling fire. Tripp’s voice nearby, groggy, saying “what… what happened?” A scuffling sound. Cool hands pressing against my arm, my face. “Maggie? Maggie wake up.”

My eyelids are so heavy and I feel so comfy. I don’t want to wake up.

“What did you do to us? Come on, wake up, Maggie!”

The panic in his voice scares me, so I slowly open my eyes. After adjusting to the light, I see Tripp is sitting on the floor next to the worn couch I’m lying on.

After a quick look around, I realize we’re in an old stone house, but not like the one where I first met him. This house has been well tended to and is in perfect condition. The interior walls are still standing here and are adorned with paintings, the floor is polished wood and covered with crocheted rugs, and the stairs leading to the second floor look as solid as the day they were built.

A smokeless fire is burning in the hearth nearby and next to it, rocking in a wooden chair, is the old hag. For the first time that I’ve seen, she is smiling.

“Ah, see there?” she says in a frail, thin voice. “I knew she would wake soon, there was no cause for alarm.”

I sit up as Tripp fusses over me, making sure I’m feeling ok as I do so. 

“You both must have been very determined,” she continues to rock, watching up with a curious expression. “My wards have sent even the strongest hunters running off in the opposite direction, yet you two forced through them and even managed to cross my wall.” 

“What’s a ward?” Tripp asks as he moves to sit next to me on the couch. 

“A repellant spell, to keep people from getting too close to my home. Of course I also have other spells in place: a camouflage spell so the house isn’t visible to anyone who gets near enough, and the defense spell that you both are waking up from.” 

“Who are you?” I ask.

“My family name has been lost to me, but you can call me Patience. I am the Witch of the Woods.”

My head was swimming with questions; trying to sort and prioritize them was almost impossible. Instead of a well thought out question, I blurted out, “How old are you?”

Instead of getting angry, her smile grew even wider. “Old,” was the only answer I got. She turned her attention to Tripp. “I owe you an apology.”

“Me?” Tripp leaned forward, eager to soak in every word Patience said. 

She stopped rocking and slowly got off her chair, taking slow shuffling steps to the mantle above the fire. She pulls down a thin navy blue box. She runs her fingers lovingly across the lid before opening it like a book and sighing heavily. 

She begins to take shuffling steps towards us when Tripp hops off the couch and crosses the distance of the small room. I follow his lead to look at the object in her hand. 

What I thought was a box was actually a portfolio style case for an old tintype photograph. The man in the photo looks to be around his mid-20s and although he is posed stoically, you can see the warmth in his eyes. I look up to see Patience is choked up. I guided her back into her rocking chair, Tripp and I sit on the floor in front of her. 

“My Amos.” It seemed as if even saying his name was painful. “I have lived more lifetimes than I can count and he is the only man I have ever loved. I used my magic to extend his life, but all magic comes with a price. I couldn’t make him immortal as I am, but the spell I did extended his life immensely, but doing so instantly took my youth and vitality and made me into what you see in front of you.”

She closed her eyes, for a few seconds before continuing. “My Amos didn’t care. He loved me no matter how I was. We lived here blissfully, completely disconnected from the world around us for over one hundred years.” 

“He aged over the years, at a much slower pace than he would have without the spell. After enough time, we looked like a proper couple.” A dry chuckle escapes her throat. “Even though we knew it was coming, his passing was too difficult for me.” 

I glance over at Tripp and his gray eyes watch her raptly. 

“Those first days were the hardest of my life. I made the fateful decision one night after crying nonstop for hours.” 

Patience took a slow, steadying breath, but I knew what she was going to say. “You decided to bring him back.”

Her chestnut brown eyes opened and fixed on me, they appeared decades younger than the rest of her. “I did,” she nodded lightly. “A powerful full moon was approaching. At the height of it, I performed the ritual and within minutes he was back with me, just as he was before – except his eyes.” She shifts her glance to Tripp. “We spent the night holding each other and smiling.” 

She points to a shelf on the far wall, “my dear, bring me the doll over there.” I jump up and cross the room. On the shelf is a small, hand sewn doll made of a coarse brown woven material and a blue cotton shirt material. Small gray pearl buttons have been stitched on for the eyes. I never believed in magic before all of this, but holding this doll, it radiated with magic. 

I brought it back to Patience and she cradled it in her lap. “Amos and I spent the next two weeks back in our euphoric state.”

I held my breath, I knew what was coming. 

“But as I said, all magic has a price.” She looked back to the doll in her lap, unable to look at us as she continued to tell her tale. “The new moon came around. A full lunar cycle from the night he passed. As soon as the sun went down…” 

“He changed,” Tripp filled in when she couldn’t bring herself to say it. 

“He wasn’t himself. I had no choice but to-“ 

“You did what you had to,” I chimed in. 

She brought her gaze back up to meet my eyes. “I did. I didn’t know he would change back, I couldn’t leave him like that. So once again I was alone. It wasn’t long after… that when I noticed all the helicopters overhead. I ventured out past my  wall and into the town and saw that my spell had brought more than just Amos back.”

“I wandered the towns gathering information. I learned that everyone who came back ‘changed’ during the new moon but were themselves again the next morning. I should have broken the spell right then but despite the new moon challenge, I saw families reunited. I couldn’t break them up again.”

Patience whispered, barely audible. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t your decision anymore,” Tripp said. I could only watch, confused, as he reached forward and took the doll from Patience’s lap and stood up. He spun the doll around in his hand, slowly, inspecting every inch of it. 

I stood up as well, thinking he was looking for something on the doll. I stood mesmerized as he twirled it in his strong hands. 

“Maggie…” he began but stopped himself. 

Beside us, Patience worked her way out of the chair and made her way across the room to the small kitchen area, her back to us. I almost thought I heard a sniffle as she walked away. 

I looked up into Tripp’s gray eyes and felt something warm on my face. With one hand, he wiped away the tears that had slipped from my eyes. My body knew what was happening before my mind had caught up but in that instant, I knew what was happening. 

“No. Whatever you’re thinking, just… no.” More tears fell onto my cheeks. 

“I- all of us, we were never supposed to be back. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved having this extra time, but every new moon that comes around…” He wiped away more tears and left his cool hand resting on my shoulder. “It’s not right. We need to go back to wherever we were before.”

“There’s protocols, to keep everyone safe,” my voice is so shaky it doesn’t even sound like me.

“For how long? What if they fail?” But he doesn’t wait for an answer, he leans down and kisses me, his cool lips connecting with mine. 

A sob escapes my throat as he pulls back, he turns towards the fire. “No, wait, please!” I grab at his upper arm, desperate to hold him longer. “Not yet, please. Please.” 

A small cough comes from the kitchen, we both turn and see the old hag pointing out the window, the forest beyond the glass is orange in the setting sun. The new moon is minutes away. 

My breathing is ragged and I pull Tripp into a hug, not wanting to let go. He holds me tighter than he ever has and plants one last cold kiss on my forehead. Still in my arms, he tosses the doll onto the flames next to us. For a heartbeat nothing happens, but then with a flash of green flames, Tripp’s body crumples to the floor. 

I drop down beside him, draped across him, and weep. After several minutes, Patience sits down on the floor beside me. She gently puts a mug of steaming tea into my hands, I sit up and look at her pleadingly. 

“Bring him back.”

“Drink up, Maggie. Everything will be ok.”

The scent coming from the warm mug is floral and herbal and unlike anything I ever smelled before. As I lift the mug, my tears fall from my cheeks and mingle into the tea. With the first sip, my sadness lessens just a little bit. 

Outside in the distance, the futile air raid siren sounds. 

 

Epilogue

In a booth at the Lakeside Grill, I sit with my laptop open in front of me and my notebook open beside it. I scroll through the Undead Reporter website and all the articles that I’ve posted in the six months since The End. I told myself I would honor Tripp’s memory by reporting the whole truth. Thankfully, he had given me the username and password for his site so I used his platform to continue spreading the news. 

I scrolled through the titles of past articles I’ve written: The Witch of the Woods; the CDC Interrogation; the Body Collection; and The Wall Comes Down posted only two days ago.  

I go to the drafts page. The title stares at me in big bold letters: MY GOODBYE. 

The empty field for the body of the post stares back at me. I’ve started and deleted this post so many times. Saying goodbye to his readers feels like a final goodbye to him. Tripp’s dedication to the truth gave me the drive I needed in my own life. In a few days, I start a new job at the area’s number one news station. 

The Undead Reporter helped with that. My posts reporting on everything that happened got world wide attention. I had offers from LA to New York to London. I chose to stay local. My dad being gone again has been really hard on my mom so I wanted to be able to be with her and commute to work. 

I begin to type: Thank you, dear readers, for allowing me to bring you with me on this whirlwind the last few months.

A camera flash to my left breaks my train of thought. I look up to see a plump woman with unnaturally red hair. The stunned look on my face prompts her to take a step closer to my booth.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, it’s just – you’re her, aren’t you? Maggie Kirkland?” Her sweatshirt is a pale pink embroidered with the name of a coastal town I had never heard of, the seashell details obscured by the camera hanging around her neck. 

“Yes, I am. Hi, nice to meet you.” I shake her hand and as quickly as her name comes out of her mouth, I’ve forgotten it. She takes a selfie with me and goes back to her table, chattering excitedly and showing her pictures to the man at the table. 

This kind of interaction is nothing new, since the wall came down, our town has been flooded with tourists. They all have traveled here to see the empty CDC containment centers, the paper mill, the lake, and the woods. But no matter how far they search into the woods, they will never find the stone house that Patience occupied. 

The last time I saw her was that fateful day six months ago. I sipped my tea with Tripp’s lifeless body next to me. She told me the tea wouldn’t take away my pain, but it would make it bearable. She also said she was moving on from these woods, they would never be the same without Amos. She was going to find other woods to call her home. I drifted off to sleep and when I woke up, I was in the middle of the forest with Tripp’s body and both of our backpacks. I used his GPS to send my coordinates to my mom. I waited for hours until the retrieval team showed up. They took Tripp’s body and escorted us both out of the woods. 

When the CDC team took the map and went back to the restricted area, they found nothing but more woods. No stone house, no wall, and no Patience.

I had no evidence for the CDC to back up my story other than a map to nowhere. But with no other explanation, they “unofficially” accepted my story. “Officially” all their reports claim it’s a freak combination of water and soil and bacteria that caused The Rising. 

After the “official” reports were released, hits on The Undead Reporter site skyrocketed. According to all the tourists that have been interviewed, no matter what the CDC says, my truth has become the “official” story of the people. 

Back to my laptop I delete what I had written and begin again. 

Thank you, Tripp, for showing me that the truth-

I hit the backspace key, deleting what I just wrote until all that was left was, “Thank you, Tripp.”

A satisfying feeling passed through me as I pressed the big green “PUBLISH” button on the right hand side of the screen. As I tuck my laptop into my bag, I see a pair of worn converse step up to my table. 

A familiar voice says, “Hi.”

I look up to see Tim standing over me. I only ever saw him sitting down and in a CDC hazmat suit, so seeing him out in the open like this was shocking. He’s muscular, and taller than I would have thought. 

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” he extends his hand and blushes slightly.

I shake his hand, comforted by it’s warmth. “Nice to finally meet you too.” 

He slides into the booth across from me and, without the aid of Patience’s tea, I feel like things might just be ok. 

They’re Just Like Us (Part 7)

Catch up on the story here


Leaves and twigs crunch under our feet as we snake our way through the forest at sundown the next day. We met at one of the trail parking lots and left the cars there, heading deep into the forest, leaving the trails far behind us. The barely-there crescent moon peeked through the treetops but doesn’t provide much light, so the small beams of our flashlights lit our way. Tripp talked excitedly as we trekked along.

“I’ve been so sure this whole time, that the paper mill has something to do with the Rising. I mean, a factory that uses a ton of chemicals smack in the center of this all just can’t be a coincidence.” He moves his hands more when he talks today than he has in the past. “You just know they are leeching chemicals into the water supply-”

I cut him off before he can go any further, “But even before the Rising, they had to have some sort of safety checks. And the CDC has done a few inspections since then, right?”

“They have, over a dozen times I think. I joined them on one of them.” He grins, proud of that fact. “They wanted to be transparent about what they were doing so when my site started to become popular, they asked me along to report on what I had seen.”

“So, if you know the CDC has already checked them out, and you even participated on the inspections, why are we headed there? And why didn’t we just park in their lot?”

“Because we’re not doing an inspection. I’m just…” he paused, trying to find the words. “I’m just so sure they’re the cause. I just need to find the proof.”

His whole demeanor seemed to have changed in an instant. “And how are we going to find it?”

He stops walking and turns to face me, hands clenched around his flashlight. I match his posture jokingly before realizing he wasn’t playing around. I relax my body. “Well?”

“I’m breaking in to look through their files.”

“You’re what?!” My hand clutches at the strap of my camera bag slung over my shoulder, wringing it tightly. “You can’t do that, you’re going to get caught – you’ll get arrested!”

“It’s a possibility, yes.” He digs into his pocket and pulls out a scrap of paper. “Maggie, you’re going to need this.”

I hesitate before finally taking the paper from his hands. Unfolding it, I see the words “AdminT” and “ISFTT1212” scrawled in his messy handwriting.

“It’s the login for my website, so you can report what happens, if something happens to me and I can’t.” He adjusts the brim of his baseball cap and nods, smiling. “It won’t come to that, but I figured you should have it.”

“Ok… yeah.” I shove the paper into a small side pocket in my camera bag. “Can we get back to the breaking and entering that’s about to happen though?”

“Don’t worry, I thought it through.” He turns away and starts heading toward the paper mill again. “You’re not coming in with me. I don’t mind breaking the law but I won’t have you do it too. I want you there to take some outside shots of me entering and that’s it.”

“I appreciate you saying that,” I sped up to match his pace, “but I’m going in with you.”

We argued the rest of the walk as to whether I was staying outside or going with him. The only thing that broke the argument was the chain link fence surrounding the mill coming into view.

Tripp made quick work of cutting and pulling aside part of the chain fence so we could slip inside.

The massive gray building loomed ahead of us, it’s idle smoke stacks reaching for the inky blue sky. We made our way around the side and to the back of the building until we reached a small shed attached to the building. Behind us we could see the massive dark shadows that were the piles of lumber that would eventually be pulped and pressed and who knows what else.

Tripp shoved his flashlight into his bag and in a hushed whisper explained, “the floor level windows and doors are all alarmed, but I’m going to climb this shed and pry open the second floor window to get in.”

“You mean we are going to…”

He looked as if he was going to argue but gave up and continued in his whisper “Ok, fine.”

“And why are we whispering? We’re doing this at night because you said the place would be empty?”

“No, I said the employees would be gone, but the mill has a security company that does sweeps through the building.”

That revelation should have changed my mind, but his quest for the truth was infectious and I found that I truly didn’t want to stay outside, no matter the risk. It also didn’t matter that I felt the paper mill wasn’t involved somehow, I just needed to see how this ended.

I began to climb the shed, which was difficult since there wasn’t much to hold, but Tripp was able to give me a boost- by using both hands on my hips to help push me up. My face flushed as I scrambled up onto the small rooftop. He was up on the roof effortlessly a few seconds later.

He rested a hand on my shoulder, his concerned gray eyes boring into mine. “Last chance to back out, Mags. If you stay here, you’ll only get a slap on the wrist for trespassing if we’re caught.”

“I’m coming with.” The decision was made and I wasn’t changing my mind now.

The large window took both of our strength to lift open but eventually lifted enough for us to scramble through. We stood on the metal catwalk that surrounded the entire factory floor. Below us were massive spools of paper, ten feet tall and two times as wide. Beyond the spools were conveyor belts and large machines and vats that contained the necessary paper-making supplies. During the day the factory floor would be bright, noisy, and a flurry of activity, but right now with just the security lights lit, it feels deserted and eerie.

Tripp points across the building, I follow his attention and see a row of office doors, closed, on the opposite wall. We’re halfway around the catwalk when Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me into a crouched position, huddled against the outer wall. It takes a second or two for me to see what he saw. The beam of a security flashlight bouncing around on the factory floor below us. A few seconds later the heavy set body of a pale skinned security guard comes into view.

I start to panic, afraid of getting caught. I look to Tripp and see his gray eyes are wide with excitement. He’s having a blast and here I am starting to hyperventilate. He mouths “it’s ok. Don’t worry” and nods for me to look at the guard again.

The security guard is almost directly below us and because of our higher vantage point I’m able to see that the he isn’t even paying attention to what’s going on around him. His head is down and although the hand with the flashlight is panning back and forth, his attention is focused on his other hand where his cell phone is held, the screen awash with colorful balls. He swipes across his screen frantically and a menagerie of sounds is emitted, like a slot machine in a casino. The guards deep voice drowns them out for a second as he shouts “yes!” Apparently proud of whatever he had just accomplished in his game.

My breathing returns to normal as the guard moves away from us, taking the sounds of his game dinging along with him. We stay hunched along the catwalk a few extra minutes to ensure the guard isn’t going to do a sweep upstairs.

The mill must trust their security team because the office door isn’t locked when we try it. The first office has old looking wood paneling on the walls, a desk in front of it, and filing cabinets along the walls. Each filing cabinet drawer is filled with purchase orders, supply invoices, and monthly expense logs. After several minutes rifling through the paperwork, Tripp signaled to me that we should move on to the next office.

The second office was similar to the first in it’s wood paneling decor and single desk. The only difference we found were the contents of the filing cabinets. Where the last was all financial numbers, these are filled with people. Or, their personnel files more accurately.

Drawer after drawer was filled with files on each employee, their resumes, performance reports, HR complaints, and things of that nature. Tripp didn’t make any motions to move on so we stayed, flipping through files for almost ten minutes. He knew what he was looking for and finally I heard him whisper “here it is!”

The file was for the safety officer at the mill; the person in charge of all the safety checks on the equipment, ensuring the seals on all the chemical vats, and dealing with the environmental protection agency regulations. Tripp flipped angrily through his file, finding nothing out of the ordinary, before stuffing it back into the drawer with a huff.

The door to the third office was locked, which quickly erased Tripp’s frustration and brought back the glint of excitement to his gray eyes. He dug through his bag and pulled out a small tool kit. Using two slim silver tools from the kit, he popped the lock and we slipped inside, silently shutting the door behind us.

This was clearly the office of somebody important. The space is much larger than the other ones, with two large windows flanking a massive, solid wood desk. The wood paneling must have been removed from the walls a long time ago and instead was painted a tasteful off-white. Two leather chairs sit in the corner on the left side of the room, an end table between them turned into a makeshift bar with lowball glasses and decanters full of dark liquors.

Tripp’s attention was focused on the wall to our right. A dark wood lateral filing cabinet sat there, the dim light from the parking lot out front coming in through the windows glints off the polished handles. Tripp knelt in front of it as a person kneels in front of a religious artifact. He tugged on the handles and found each drawer to be locked, which made him feverish. With the same silver tools, he unlocked the drawers, yanking out folder after folder, tearing through them with the voracity that got me worked up too.

I knelt beside him and opened the first folder I could, only to find blueprints for the building we were in. Undeterred, I grabbed the next folder which contained bills of sale on their delivery trucks. It went on that way for the next dozen or so folders I grabbed. Banal paperwork that kept the business running. No EPA warnings, no secret memos about chemical spills, nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Tripp was poring over an environmental impact report he had found and I had just opened a file that contained a map of the surrounding forest when we both froze. Metallic thuds come from outside and they were unmistakable –  footsteps on the catwalk. As quietly as possible, we shove the folders into the drawers and looked around for a hiding spot. I realized the map was still in my lap so I stuff it into my camera bag as Tripp pulls me to my feet and towards the front corner of the room. If someone came in, we would be to their left in the darkest corner behind a coat rack.

Hopefully that would be enough to hide us.

My back was against the wall and Tripp was as close as he could be without squishing me. I had gotten so used to his gray eyes and he always wore his baseball cap that covered his head wound but the lack of heat radiating from him was a shocking reminder that he was undead. That was something my mom struggled with when Dad first came back, the room temperature body heat.

I pulled my thoughts back to our current problem as the steps got closer. It was probably the guard on an hourly sweep, locked into whatever he was playing on his phone, and would walk on by as he did before.

But of course we aren’t that lucky. The footsteps come to a halt on the opposite side of the wall. The metal doorknob jiggles as a key slips inside and turns.

My heart is pounding so hard I wonder if Tripp can feel it. He frantically scans the room, trying to figure out our next move. The door swings open and a weathered man in his mid-50s enters. He’s taller than Tripp is with salt and pepper hair, broad strong shoulders, and arms that are thicker than a tree trunk. Any thoughts Tripp may have had about overpowering this man probably flew out the window the instant we saw him.

With a flick of the switch, the room floods with a warm light from overhead. The man makes his way towards the desk.

We have only a few seconds until he spots us.

Tripp grabs my arm and pulls me towards the door. I can hear a surprised shout from behind me but I don’t turn around. I follow Tripp’s lead and run as fast as I can along the catwalk, heading back to the open window.

“HEY! STOP!!”

The thudding behind me tells me he’s chasing us. Without looking back, Tripp yells to me “Don’t stop!”

He disappears through the window onto the roof of the shed ahead of me. I practically dive through it right behind him. With no hesitation Tripp leaps off the roof to the ground below. “Come on! Jump!”

I hesitate.

The ground looks too far away from up here. But I hear a noise and turn to see the man at the window, his could-be-handsome face is red with anger and he hollers at me again to stop.

Instead, I jump.

Like the graceful person I am, I land on my ankle wrong and tumble to the ground. Yanking on my arm, Tripp helps me up and pulls me back into a run for the hole in the fence he made.

I go through the fence first and as Tripp scrambles through the opening, I hazard a glance at the window. The man is still standing there, fuming quietly watching us slip away.

We run for as long as we are able to in the dark, stumbling over logs and roots in the dark forest. When we finally feel we’re a safe distance and not being followed, we slow our pace to a fast walk.

My chest burns with the effort of running. I wouldn’t say I’m out of shape, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m in shape either. My breathing is hard and ragged and Tripp’s is equally as loud. I wonder if this is from running or because his brain feels like it should be doing that.

We walk in silence until the yellow of his Jeep is visible in the distance. He lets out a heavy sigh, the first sound he’s made since we escaped.

“I’m sorry we didn’t find anything, Tripp.”

“Yeah,” another long sigh. “Maybe it’s there and we just didn’t have the time to find it? Maybe we should try again after the new moon?”

“He saw us; he knows we were in his files. If there’s even anything worth finding, he’s not going to keep it there anymore, and he’ll probably beef up the security around the place after this.” The forest breaks into the open expanse of the trail’s parking lot. The tiniest sliver of moon hangs in the sky above us. “It’s over.”

His shoulders seem to sag with the realization. “Yeah,” he repeats, sounding totally defeated.

I dig my hand into my bag to fish out my keys and my fingers brush against paper wadded inside. I pull it out and realize it’s the map from the man’s office. “At least we got this nifty map of the forest.”

“Who cares? It’s public knowledge that they bought a large chunk of the forest as nature reserves. I guess they figured since loggers are cutting down forests for their paper, it’ll look good for the environmentalists.” He pulls his keys out of his backpack. “It probably is just a map of what portion they own.”

I unfold the map and smooth it out, laying it on the trunk of my car. Tripp was just about to hop up into his Jeep when I called his name. “Come take a look at this.”

In the middle of the map, deep in the forest, an area is circled in red marker. The word “RESTRICTED” is written beneath it.

His jaw hangs open as he inspects the map. His fingers trace over the word several times before he goes back into his frenzy mode. Out of his bag he digs a small ruler and his GPS. He does several calculations before he acknowledges I’m still standing there.

“There’s no roads anywhere near there that I can see, but we can hike it. It’ll take about three hours if you’re up for it.”

“Now?! No way! It’s pitch black out, by the time we get there it’ll still be pitch black, and it’ll stay pitch black for hours after we get there!” I snatch the map out of his hands. “I’m all for hiking it, but if we’re doing this, we’re doing it the right way.”

Tripp opens his mouth to complain but I cut him off. “We’re not hiking these woods in the middle of the night. It doesn’t make sense. We’ll meet back here first thing tomorrow and hike there. It’ll be light out so I can get plenty of photos of whatever is in this restricted area. And we’ll still have plenty of time to hike back to get you to the CDC containment center for sundown.”

His eyes dart to the map in my hands. “But -“

“No.”

“We can-“

“No we can’t. I’m hanging on to the map overnight. Go home. Get some sleep. We’ll meet back here at 6:30. That way we don’t accidentally walk into a sleeping bear or something.” I tuck the map back into my bag.

He chuckles, apparently accepting his fate that there’s no way we’re going on that hike right now. “Ok, first thing tomorrow morning. We’re going to finally find the truth.” His smile lights his whole face.

A tingling sensation builds in my stomach and I decide to be bold. I stand on my toes and press my lips against his, lingering against their coolness for a few seconds before pulling away. His smile is now lopsided, a combination of shock and joy.

I know my face is completely red, so I quickly say “See you tomorrow morning.” I hop in my car and pull away, watching in the rear view mirror as he does a touchdown celebration style dance before climbing into his Jeep.

The next morning, I turn into the same lot and see he’s already parked and double checking his pack. When he sees my car, he salutes me with a cup of coffee and stands there with a smile. We exchange the coffee for the map, which he studies for a few more minutes while I sip my coffee.

“Ok, so I’ve plugged the coordinates into the GPS. My estimate was right, it should take us about three hours to get there.” He slings his backpack up onto his shoulders. “You ready?”

I follow suit, strapping on the back I had packed earlier with everything I could possibly need on the hike: water, snacks, dry socks, books on local vegetation, and of course my camera equipment. “Yep! Let’s do this!”

We hike side by side on the trail for a half hour or so before consulting the GPS and heading off-trail for the remainder of the hike. Once we get off trail, Tripp speaks up.

“So… you kissed me.”

My stomach folds itself into knots, then unties, and folds again. “Yep, I did.”

“Lets do that again sometime,” he says with a smile that I can hear. He slips his hand into mine and we hike on. We take several rest breaks as we go, making sure to hydrate and grab a snack when needed. We also use the time to repeat the kiss from the night before. Each time we kiss, the cool temperature of his lips takes me off guard.

Tripp takes one last look at the GPS to confirm we’re going in the right direction. “It looks like we’re almost there.” He puts the GPS away and takes my hand again as we walk.

“What do you think we’re going to find?”

He’s silent for a few seconds, thinking, before he finally quips, “an alien landing site.”

I roll my eyes and laugh, happier than I’ve felt in a very long time.

It’s almost a half hour later when we spot it. An old stone wall in the distance. With a quick check of the GPS, Tripp nods to confirm that’s what we’re looking for.

The wall looks incredibly old but doesn’t appear to be falling apart or in ruins. It stands chest high and goes on with no breaks or gates as far as we can see. From where we are, it looks as if there’s nothing inside the wall but more forest.

“Here, give me your bag, I’ll toss them over, then I’ll help you over.” He’s already got his bag off his shoulders and over the wall by the time I shrug my pack off.

“Careful, my camera equipment is in there.”

He hops on his belly on top of the wall and reaches to set my bag down as gently as he can. Then he jumps back down and reaches for my waist. “Your turn.”

The feeling that builds in my stomach isn’t excitement at his touch this time. It’s dread. From the moment the wall came into view, I’ve had the uncontrollable urge to turn and run. Run as far and as fast as my legs can take me.

But I don’t. We’ve come this far and it would disappoint him too much if we didn’t search every inch inside this stone wall. So he gives me the boost I need to get to the top of the wall. I swing my legs over and hop down to the soft forest floor on the other side. The feeling of dread deepens even though there’s nothing I can see but more trees. I grab my pack and slip it back on over my shoulders.

“So, which way do you want to go?” I ask.

I watch his gray eyes scan the empty forest ahead of us, somewhat disappointed at what he sees. “This way, I guess.”

I’m fixing the twisted strap on my bag as he starts to walk. He takes a few steps and wobbles on his feet. I rush up behind him to help support him but before I can get to him, my vision goes hazy, as if I opened my eyes underwater.

I gasp for breath, unable to bring air into my lungs. My nails scratch at my throat, trying to claw it open for air. The ground rushes up to meet my face as I collapse. The last thing I can see through the haze is the shape of Tripp falling down a few feet away.


Continue to The Final Chapter